Not many Americans were aware of the civil rights issues that plagued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), until the Shirley Sherrod scandal.
Last year, Sherrod, an African-American woman, was forced to resigned from the Agriculture Department after remarks that sparked a fabricated racial controversy. Sherrod had been the former Georgia director of Rural Development. Later, after realizing the agency rushed to judgment, Sherrod was given a public apology and offered a new position.
Despite the fact that the agency announced it would make changes, a new study has found that the Agriculture Department is still struggling with discrimination in its ranks. The agency has acknowledged a legacy of unequal treatment of minorities seeking loans and other help.
But now a government-commissioned report by private consulting firm Jackson Lewis LLP Corporate Diversity Counseling Group substantiated that the department is plagued by widespread discrimination. The review, which cost $8 million, was ordered by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as part of his effort to address long-running problems, many involving minorities denied loans by department field offices staffed mostly by white men.
"The major problems that Shirley Sherrod exposed—an insufficient number of loans to minority farmers, a lack of agency transparency, discrimination in services, and a lack of minority access to programs--apparently still poses problems. The agency has taken some steps to correct this problem but far too many minority farmers are still being denied loans, or discouraged --overtly and subtly--from applying for loans," explains author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge.
The study found that discrimination was most acute at the Farm Service Agency, which is responsible for delivering farm loans and other programs to rural residents. "The fact that the USDA is still "plagued by civil rights problems" is a classic example of what institutionalized racism looks like-and how hard it is to dislodge. While there are probably persons in the USDA who practice intentional discrimination, the real problem lies deeper," notes civil rights expert Victor Goode, associate professor of law, CUNY School of Law. "The USDA has practiced racial discrimination for so long that it has become deeply embedded into its normal operations. Over time, this has made it hard to distinguish racial discrimination and normal operating procedures. The fact that these practices have gone on for decades means that several generations of new staff have simply been trained into the practices of the past, perpetuating the same disabling policies that were designed at their inception to discriminate against people of color," says Goode.
The study has already prompted changes at the agency, which announced it has put in place 94 of the report's 234 recommendations, which include better training for staff, increased outreach to minority communities and reducing some financial barriers for gaining loans.
Goode says the USDA is making the right steps to change. "The special study done by Secretary Vilsack appears to be a good start. The consultants seem to have recognized the interplay between old ideas and practices and how over time they have turned into institutional discrimination," he notes.
Hutchinson too says the USDA can make the necessary policy changes. "The solution remains the same--zero tolerance toward discrimination in lending, access to programs, better efforts to inform minority farmers of lending and service programs, and finally prompt dismissal of any agency management employees guilty of discrimination in rendering services," says Hutchinson.